We can just listen: why we need to stop trying to ‘fix’ people

One of the biggest challenges facing people who identify with poor mental health today (aside from the cuts in financial support, lack of funding for statutory primary care services and stretched resources within the charity sector), is the emphasis on trying to “fix” people.

There is a growing number of “experts” who risk making huge assumptions about what people need (some helpful but not always appropriate) because either it worked for them, they’re confined to a strict model of working – or they saw it on Facebook. Even worse, they imply you must be broken if it doesn’t work for you.

An example of this was the Royal College of Psychiatrists tweeting that if anti-depressants aren’t working they have three options: “increase dose, switch the drug, or add another medication” (you can see the actual Tweet here). Whilst medication can help for some, there are many more tools in the box. But if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

As it stands, the GP – who gets on average 8 minutes in their office to understand, diagnose and treat you – have their options limited, again to medication (which not everyone wants) or a (minimum) three month waiting list for counselling. It’s hard enough seeing a doctor during difficult times, when you might need help – or at least hope – right now.

Celebrate the Courage

I’m part of a number of forums where people describe themselves as healthcare professionals. For the most part, these are people who genuinely do want to help.

A while back, a coach described a scenario in one of these forums where a client had come to visit. The coach went on to explain (within boundaries of confidentiality) the individual’s problem with stress. The client had every reason to be finding life difficult, due to a number of personal challenges they were facing. But the coach was exasperated, because the client was finding self-care difficult.

The client saw self-care as self-indulgent and selfish; the coach wanted advice from connections about how she could “correct” her client’s thinking. Cue a number of posts from other therapists, rolling out the clichés like “tell her: happiness is an inside job”, “you have to put on the oxygen mask, before you can help others” and so on.

Now, most therapists agree that self-care is essential. But if your life script tells you that taking care of yourself is bad in some way, no amount of me telling you that you deserve to relax will connect.

So instead, I suggested to the coach that she recognise the raw vulnerability and celebrate the courage of this client showing up in her office – asking for help is a huge step – and consider how much it took to reach out. That by telling her client they’re getting self-care “wrong” because of beliefs about it, was probably yet another affirmation to this client that they were falling short in some way. Instead, why not remind the client of their bravery, and encourage them to find ways to look after themselves that feel healthy and comfortable.

If it helps, a person can unpack why they feel they’re not worth it, but even then that doesn’t need “correcting” – how they feel matters. By honouring their feelings and then encouraging them to find workable options, unpacking the “why” might not even be relevant. What happens next might be all that counts.

Options are not “One Size Fits All”

Mental health can be a complicated picture, but everyone deserves the right to be treated like an individual. They are not a problem waiting to be fixed, or need a “one size fits all” option, as if humans fit neatly in to a box. We need to mind our language and change the conversation about how we behave when people open up.

We can’t – nor should we – boil down a person’s problems in to one (albeit well-meaning) cliché or motivational quote. It’s no different to someone saying “You should pull your socks up”; if someone struggling could do that, they would.

It also requires a lot of understanding, and in order to understand, we have to listen. Instead of going all solution-focused on them, we could take the time to sit, meet people where they are and appreciate the difficulties – and complexities – of situations they find themselves in. We could then celebrate the courage it took to be open about it, asking them what they think would help.

We are none of us broken items needing to be fixed; we are all, as humans, just trying to navigate life from a place of what’s happened to us. Sometimes people cope in ways that are unhealthy, and yes when any of us get stuck reaching out can definitely help.

But when someone does reach out, we can empower them to find their own answers – to become the expert in their own life – even if they find a little guidance occasionally helpful, or want to unpack how they got where they are. We can also recognise though – and value – just how far they’ve come.

Copyright Delphi Ellis – updated June 2021

Published by Delphi Ellis

Therapeutic counsellor, well-being trainer and author working with grief and mental health, helping people get their sparkle back. Explores dreams on telly. Avid tea drinker. © Delphi Ellis - Helping You Sparkle™ 2006 - 21

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